Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Argument Machine

Say you’re a supervillian. Your goal is not to take over the world, but to create more unpleasantness. So you set out to create a device that would ensnare normal, rational people and turn them into ranting lunatics. What would your Argument Machine look like? How would it work?

(Note that I mean “argument” not in terms of academic debate, which is healthy, but in the everyday “unproductive, unpleasant, angry fight” sense of the word.)

First, the machine would have to be online, so it could reach the maximum amount of people with the least amount of construction. People feel protected online, like they do in cars, so they’re more willing to fight. But it shouldn’t be just a website. It would also have to be an app on all the major platforms for maximum reach.

All arguments have a beginning, so we’ll create a tool for people to post their thoughts. This should be as easy as possible, so people do it without thinking too deeply. Forethought is the enemy of a nasty argument.

Arguments tend to fizzle out quickly if the participants are able to make a fully fleshed-out thought, so we’ll limit every thought to a ridiculously small size, say 140 characters. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also the root of misunderstandings.

We’ll then take those short thoughts and present them immediately to the audience, without any ability to edit them after the fact. We’ll even create a “reply” affordance that seems like it’s private, but we’ll actually show the reply publicly. Nothing creates a fight faster than in-group language overheard by the out-group.

To maximize negative reactions, we’ll design the presentation of these short thoughts to create annoyance. Tests have shown that information coming in too fast can create anger and defensiveness, just like someone interrupting you in real life, so we’ll make everything as fast and interruptive as possible. We’ll also pack the app with lots of notifications, so we can make people’s pockets buzz every time someone mentions them. Just like the electric shocks we used on those lab rats.

If someone isn’t receiving enough of these short thoughts to overwhelm them, then we’ll blanket them with suggestions of other people they should be hearing from, to encourage all new members to quickly reach an overwhelmed state.

With enough people, and enough short thoughts, arguments are sure to occur. When they do, we’ll add heat to them by making sure everyone can see the individual thoughts outside of the argument’s participants. Nothing like a hooting crowd to make a bad situation worse. We’ll even add a tool to allow others to repeat the thoughts to a wider network (out of context, of course). The more people who pile in, the longer the argument will last, the more people will participate.

If everything goes well, the mainstream media will start monitoring these thoughts, so that they can embarrass famous people when they speak out of turn. We’ll even create an way for people to embed these thoughts on other sites so that they remain even after the original poster deletes them. Gotcha!

Nothing is better at creating new arguments than other arguments, so once we reach a critical mass, avoiding arguments will be impossible. Now all we have to do is sit back and practice our supervillian laugh. And maybe go public.

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I think you get my point by now. Yes, I’m talking about Twitter.

I’m not saying that Twitter was designed to create arguments. I’m just saying that, if you set out to create an Argument Machine, it’d come out looking a lot like Twitter.

I think Twitter is awesome. As of today, I’ve tweeted more than 16,000 times. It’s the community tool I use more than any other. But with Twitter preparing to IPO and monetize all of us, I worry about the health of the community the tool produces.

If Twitter cared about avoiding arguments, there are so many things they could do: remove the outdated character limit, let us edit tweets, create progressive circles of privacy, don’t let retweets out of our networks, slow the whole thing down, and encourage smaller communities. But they’re not going to do any of those things because the financial pressure points in exactly the opposite direction: more users, more tweets, faster and faster. Who cares if they’re fighting?

Well, I do. I want Twitter to succeed. But every time I see some innocuous tweet spawn another long, bile-filled thread of awfulness, I become less interested in tweeting. I know, arguments will always happen, online and off. But the design of the tools we use can encourage or inhibit this human tendency, and I’m afraid Twitter is falling very far into the “encourage argument” side of things. And I’m not alone.

Where will we go when we all tire of getting yelled at on Twitter? What would a tool designed to create a harmonious exchange of interests and ideas even look like? I’m confident we’ll find out eventually, but I seriously doubt its logo will be a little blue bird.

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This post also appears on Medium.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I live in San Francisco and make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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